Ancient Mayan Astronomy – a brief look at an amazing civilization

Why should you be interested in ancient Mayan astronomy? Well, you probably already know about Orion the Hunter and the Big Dipper, but have you ever heard of Itzam Ye or the White Boned Serpent? If not, you should check out Mayan astronomy!

The Mayans and astronomy

In recent years, there has been much new information discovered about the Mayans, the Mesoamerican civilization that lived in the northern Central American region. To the Mayans, astronomy was a very important part of their day-to-day life. The Mayan priests studied the night sky for hundreds of years, and calculated a calendar that only had one error in 6000 years! One type of calendar that the Mayans used had a thirteen day week and a 260 day year. The calendar itself could be divided into cycles that were 3 million years long, and these cycles were again divided into periods of 20, 400, 8,000 and 158,000 years, depending on what they were being used for.

Ancient Mayan Astronomy and religion

Mayan astronomer-priests used shadow-casting devices and exhaustively thorough records of the position of the stars and sun to track patterns in the sky. In the ancient Mayan cities, ceremonial pyramids were aligned with the compass point directions. One very famous building of this type can be found in the city of Chichen Itza, where on the equinoxes, the sunlight slowly illuminates the stairs to the top of the pyramid and the stone snake head at the base, creating the illusion of a snake slithering down to earth.

Mayan religious ceremonies seemed to be a part of day-to-day life, and were observed and regulated by the stars. Mayan rulers, especially, were expected to conduct rituals on important dates at specific times that corresponded with the movement of the heavens above them.

Mayan beliefs and way of life

Astronomy was also important because the Mayans used it to predict things like famines and floods. With this knowledge, they would know when to plant and when to store up food.

The Mayans believed in a flat earth that had four corners. Each corner represented a cardinal direction like north, south, east or west, and at each corner there was a jaguar that supported the sky. The jaguars were called bacabs, and the one in the east was red, the one in the north was white, the one in the south was yellow and the one in the west was black.

The Dresden Codex

Due to many of the records of the Mayans being destroyed when the Spanish conquistadors arrived, we now know less about Mayan astronomy than we'd like to. One of the key pieces to modern anthropologists understanding of ancient Mayan Astronomy is what is called the Dresden Codex. These seventy-six pages were made from the bark of a fig tree. It contains information on the Mayan calender and gives us a lot of information on how the sky looked to the Mayans. On the Dresden Codex, there are many tables of numbers that were used to calculate the movement of the planets and stars across the sky.

This is a very brief look at a fascinating topic. If you're interested in ancient Mayan Astronomy, there are many sources that are available. Every civilization has its own theories about the night sky, and the Mayans' is one of the most exciting!

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